Three children were recently removed from a remote church compound called Strong City in New Mexico. There had been allegations that children at the cult may have been sexually abused, though the matter remains under investigation and charges have yet to be filed.
The leader of the group, Wayne Bent, claims to be the son of God.
In early 2007, Bent said that the world would end on Halloween of that year. That apparently fell through, however Bent was undeterred and has updated his prophecy to say that the Apocalypse will happen at any moment: "The seven last plagues are all falling now and the end of all things is at hand," Bent wrote on his church's Web site.
Failed doomsday predictions are nothing new, of course. There have been thousands of people predicting the imminent end of the world, dating back to at least 2800 B.C. They have all been wrong for thousands of years (or however how long since they spoke), but that doesn't keep people from trying.
End-times claims are often rooted in Bible passages, but also based on everything from schizophrenia to misunderstood astronomy. Most doomsday promoters are quite sincere, genuinely believing that they have discovered a (literally) Earth-shaking secret that must be shared with others.
It seems quaint now, but as the last century came to a close, there was fear of the "Y2K bug," the computer programming glitch that supposedly was going to bring the world to its knees as the millennium turned. The news media ran alarmist stories of possible consequences, ranging from the timing on your coffeemaker being off to a global nuclear war started by mistakenly-launched missiles.
While most people were only mildly concerned, many stocked up on survival gear, and some even headed to remote areas to wait out the impending holocaust.
And it wasn't just the Y2K bug; there were dozens of predictions that the world would end in 2000 (just as there had been a century earlier — some things never change). For example, author Richard Noone decided that the planets would align catastrophically almost exactly eight years ago, on May 5, 2000. The result would be the end of civilization through the melting and shifting of the polar icecaps.
Noone was so concerned about it he wrote a book titled "5/5/2000: Ice, The Ultimate Disaster." (About 18 months before doomsday, I interviewed Mr. Noone about his book and prophecy; when we concluded, I asked if we could arrange a follow-up interview on May 6, 2000, just in case the world didn't end. He declined. Noone's book is currently for sale on Amazon.com for 1 cent.)
So how do true believers react when it's clear that the world didn't end? In many cases, followers have sold or given away all their possessions, assuming that they would have no need of them after the apocalypse. There must be some red faces as the hour of judgment comes … and goes.
You might also think that followers would decide they'd been fooled and rebel. More often, however, the failed prophecy actually makes their belief stronger. In the case of cults, members have invested their money, time, lives, and sometimes even children in the cult leader. It's very difficult to suddenly reject all that, since their very identity is often linked to the beliefs.
Believers may rationalize away the failure in one or more of the following ways: They may decide that the end is in fact near, but that the time or date was simply misinterpreted and move the true end-times date forward (as Wayne Bent did); they may decide that their faith and prayer actually saved the world and averted disaster; or they may believe that the end of the world did in fact occur, but nobody else noticed it because it was a mystical or spiritual apocalypse, not a physical one. For more on the psychology of failed apocalyptic predictions, see Leon Festinger's classic book "When Prophecy Fails."
The latest fad in end-times predictions is for the year 2012, which (depending on which "expert" you listen to) will supposedly bring about either a new age of global spiritual awakening, or the end of the world. Or maybe something in between.
There are several Web sites dedicated to cataloging hundreds of past doomsdays. One of the best is A Brief History of the Apocalypse. Check the site in 2013 to see what it says.
Benjamin Radford has a degree in psychology and uses it often. His books can be found on his website.
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